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NOW IT'S TIME FOR THE PAYOFF LADIES' FIGURE SKATING BEGINS.

Byline: Paul Oberjuerge Staff Writer

TURIN, Italy - Now, for the Main Event.

Its formal name is Ladies' Figure Skating.

On the Winter Olympics program, it's more like the world heavyweight championship.

Sasha Cohen, Irina Slutskaya and the rest of the daring darlings of the women's skate world take to the ice tonight for the Turin Olympics short program.

This is the real centerpiece of the Winter Games, the event that drives television ratings in the United States, home to the TV networks that pay the huge rights fees that keep the International Olympic Committee in the black.

Viewers seem drawn to the elegant and athletic competitors, all alone on the ice, and about seven minutes of competition (including Thursday's free skate) away from the grandest title in the sport - Olympic gold medalist.

The skate women are NBC's last, best hope for taking back mid-week ratings dominance during these Olympics, particularly against Fox juggernaut ``American Idol,'' which thrashed NBC's Olympics coverage last Tuesday and Wednesday and faces again off with NBC tonight and Thursday.

NBC paid $613 million to secure the Turin Games, and it will be counting on the female skaters to even the score with its network rivals.

Slutskaya, the almost-imperious Russian veteran, is the favorite here. She won the silver medal at the 2002 Olympics, was fifth in 1998, is a two-time world champion and seven-time European champion.

She has the kind of backstory Olympics viewers love, too; her mother is awaiting a kidney transplant, and Slutskaya still takes medication after a serious 2004 bout with vasculitis, which can effect the heart.

Slutskaya she will be pushed by 28 competitors, including three Americans - Kimmie Meissner, Emily Hughes and Cohen, the U.S. champion.

``You never know what can happen,'' Slutskaya said. ``It's ice. It's slippery. It's life.''

It also can be high drama.

In 2002, Sarah Hughes skated the performance of her career and grabbed the gold.

In 1998, Tara Lipinski came out of the pack to upset Michelle Kwan and win gold.

And in 1994, 126.5 million Americans - an Olympics high - watched arch-rivals Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in Day 1 of their competition, eventually won by Oksana Baiul.

Compare that to last Tuesday, when NBC drew only 18 million to its Turin coverage.

Cohen is the best-known of the American skaters, but on Monday she said she isn't thinking about bolstering what has been a tepid U.S. team performance here - let alone NBC's tepid ratings performance.

``I've learned to not worry about things out of my control,'' she said Monday after her first practice session on the Palavela ice.

The short program counts for only a little more than one-third of a skater's final score, but it tends to narrow the field to five or six skaters with realistic medals chances.

Among those likely to live to fight again on Thursday:

--Slutskaya. No Russian woman has won Olympic gold and, at 27, she would be the oldest Olympic champion since 1908. She is by no means the most graceful skater in the field. But she has the experience, jumps and the famous double-Biellmann spin to boost her to the top step of the podium.

--Cohen, 21, the Corona del Mar native, takes up the mantle of Best American Hope with the withdrawal last week of the iconic Kwan, out with a groin injury. Cohen is the most elegant skater in the field, Audrey Hepburn on ice, but her days of out-of-the-rink jumping are in the past. Most skate insiders believe Slutskaya will win if she and Cohen skate to their normal levels.

--Meissner. Runner-up to Cohen at the U.S. Championships last month, and a bit under the radar here. Meissner, 16, is one of the planet's best female jumpers; her triple axel is a points bonanza under the new scoring system. She is not known for polish or precision, however, mostly a function of her age.

--Emily Hughes. She is the sister of Sarah Hughes, 2002 Olympic champion, and a late replacement here for Kwan. Emily Hughes, 18, was third at the U.S. Championships, and is known for style, speed and precision. But not for jumping. She is hurriedly trying to incorporate a triple-triple combination into her program.

--Shisuka Arakawa. The Japanese veteran was the 2004 world champion (Slutskaya was absent, with her illness), and one of the women (Miki Ando and Fumie Suguri are the others) Japan is looking to as an antidote for a sickly Olympics by its team.

--Elena Sokolova. Like Slutskaya, a Russian and Moscow native. A powerful jumper, she won the silver at the European championships, behind Slutskaya, last month.

--Carolina Kostner. The statuesque Italian has home-ice advantage, and she has a bronze medal from the 2005 world championships on her resume. However, she was seventh on the Palavela arena ice a year ago, and has a reputation for not bearing up well under pressure.

Every competitor presumably is pleased at who is not here: Japanese sensation Mao Asada, the only woman to defeat Slutskaya over the past year-and-a-half. Asada, 15, is not old enough to compete in the Olympics.

The luck of the draw put Cohen 29th (and last) in the skating order, where she doesn't have to worry about judges holding back because other skaters are still to come. ``I like it because I have the last practice time and get to sleep longer,'' Cohen said.

Slutskaya skates 18th, Hughes 15th and Meissner second.

Cohen perhaps spoke for 29 women who figure to have a serious case of nerves tonight when she conceded that mistakes will happen, even to the best.

``We're not robots,'' she said. ``It happens. You get up again.''

Paul Oberjuerge, (909) 386-3865

paul.oberjuerge(at)sbsun.com

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2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2) Sasha Cohen, left, of the U.S. and Russia's Irina Slutskaya are two of the favorites in the ladies' figure skating competition.

Eric Gay/Associated Press
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 21, 2006
Words:989
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